House Democrats trying to force vote on immigration reform

Tue, Mar 25, 2014 (9:04 a.m.)

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Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., responds to a question during a town hall meeting at the Cora Coleman Senior Center in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

House Democrats are readying their second discharge petition of the month, this time, in an effort to push Republican Speaker John Boehner to schedule a vote on immigration reform.

“We will move forward with the discharge petition because one person should not stand in the way of the will of the majority of the American people,” Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said this morning. “Speaker Boehner, we want a vote. It’s time to pass comprehensive immigration reform now.”

The discharge petition, which will be open for signature tomorrow, is expected to draw significant support from Democrats, who have been angling for a vote on their immigration bill, H.R. 15, for months.

It’s the second that House Democrats have filed in March on a major issue. The first was to press Boehner to schedule a vote on extending funding for emergency unemployment benefits.

While this turn to discharge petitions signals a new Democratic legislative strategy, it is also a desperate indication of the sorry state to which interparty politics in Congress have sunk.

Discharge petitions are basically a last-ditch attempt for the minority party to exercise political pressure. The basic idea: Collect 218 signatures for a bill — the magic number because that is a majority in the 435-member House — and the speaker is forced to bring the measure to a vote this congressional session, like it or not.

The only problem is that it’s difficult to get members of the majority party to sign a petition against their own speaker — even in a Republican party as divided as this one.

Though the Republican Party has had its fair share of public meltdowns, the splintering usually happens somewhere along the fault line between conservative GOP members who self-affiliate as Tea Party and the more mainstream rank-and-file of the party. Unfortunately for Democrats, that is not an exploitable division for the purpose of promoting immigration reform and an extension of unemployment benefits funding, which typically draw support from the more moderate wing of the Republican Party. That wing has recoiled from publicly defying Boehner with a petition, even if it has otherwise implored him to pay greater attention to these issues.

Simple math says the 199 House Democrats stand no chance of having their discharge petitions being successful unless they draw some of those Republicans on board.

But House Democrats have lost patience with the dangling-carrot approach in trying to entice their somewhat like-minded Republican colleagues to lend their support to ventures to advance legislation on immigration and unemployment funding.

Blame the fact that it’s an election year or the months of battle fatigue or the fact that these Democrats are getting palpable pressure from their constituents to do something, but the tone now is all stick.

“They are coconspirators in tearing families apart,” Horsford said of Republicans, after telling a story of constituent Thelma Martinez-Soto, an undocumented immigrant who was detained for four weeks, only recently being released after Horsford and others intervened.

House Democrats aren’t reserving their criticism solely for Republicans when it comes to immigration reform.

Those members announcing the discharge petition today noted that many eyes are also on President Barack Obama, who said earlier this month that he would order a review of deportation policies, under pressure from members of his own party to start a deferred-action style program for adults.

In 2012, Obama started a two-year, renewable deferred action and work authorization program for young immigrants between the ages of 16 and 30 who came to the United States without authorization as children and don’t have a criminal record.

But an act of the president only has effect as long as that president is in office, which is why House Democrats are so bent on resolving the immigration question this year, while a majority of Americans are in favor of immigration reform and while Democrats have the momentum of a Senate bill that drew the bipartisan support of 67 senators.

Hence, the discharge petition.

It’s worth noting that discharge petitions have been successful in bringing legislation to the floor in the past, but only twice in the last couple of decades.

In 1986, the National Rifle Association backed such an effort to bring a gun-rights bill to a vote, and in 2002, the Democratic minority in the House used a discharge petition to force a vote on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as McCain-Feingold, that regulated campaign financing.

Nevada’s House Republicans have given no indication that they are thinking about signing the circulating discharge petitions.

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